By Mary DeTurris Poust
Skyrocketing fuel and food costs are putting the financial squeeze on even the most economically stable American families this Christmas season, but for working poor families, the squeeze is more like a stranglehold, endangering their homes, their children and their health.
Whether they're buying a gallon of milk or a gallon of gas, Americans are having to dig deeper into their pockets for even the most basic of life's necessities, which tends to have a domino effect on every other facet of their lives. Suddenly the choice is not between a Disney vacation and a new car but between health insurance and heat.
For those Americans already struggling to scrape by month to month, it could be a choice between food and foreclosure.
"I think the most dramatic thing that we have been seeing is that more and more working families are coming to us. It's distressing," said Candy Hill, senior vice president for social policy and government affairs at Catholic Charities USA. "People are working and struggling and still are not able to make ends meet. They are one crisis away from completely losing their housing or having no heat or not being able to feed themselves or their family."
Hill told Our Sunday Visitor that Catholic Charities overall has seen a 10 percent increase in the number of people coming to them that are at or below the poverty line. A lack of affordable housing and minimum-wage jobs that do not provide people with livable wages contribute to the cycle of poverty that leaves many Americans without enough money to provide themselves and their families with the basics.
Earlier this year, Catholic Charities launched the Campaign to Reduce Poverty in America with the hope of cutting the U.S. poverty rate in half by 2020.
"We are sounding the alarm that the American people need to realize that we are going to have to address this issue. If we want to secure our country, we need to pay attention to the widening gap between those in this country that have the most money and those that have the least," she said.
Hill said that she was recently looking at the bishops' 1986 pastoral letter "Economic Justice for All" and realized that what the bishops were saying more than 20 years ago about things like minimum wage and universal health care coverage still applies today.
"This is the same conversation we're having now. We have not moved the needle at all. In fact, we are going in the wrong direction," she said, noting that crime statistics, infant mortality statistics and other indicators point to poverty as the underlying cause. "We have got people here who are suffering, and we need to address that. I think we see the symptoms of that in the statis_tics that we are all horrified by, but we don't seem to collectively have the political will to do anything about it."
At the Christian Community Center on the shores of Lake Michigan in Muskegon, Mich., the increasing number of residents seeking food correlates directly with the increasing cost of living. Michael Gilleece, director of the center, told OSV that the people who come to his door are not homeless or jobless. They are working people or senior citizens who are spending so much of their income on gas for their cars and heat for their homes that they can no longer afford to buy food for their tables.
The center, which is operated by Catholic Charities, serves 120 full dinners five nights a week. Gilleece said that in the past the number of people coming for dinner would increase only toward the end of the month, but that pattern is changing.
"Now we are noticing that that has been pushed way back. Some people are coming earlier in the month, and some people are coming every night," he said, adding that the center's food pantry is also seeing a dramatic increase among regular users as well as first-time users.
Beth Chambers, director of Catholic Charities for the greater Boston region, said the number of people coming to the two centers in her area has doubled in the last two years, with an especially high increase in the number of children being served.
The people frequenting the centers are making choices between paying their utilities and buying food, she said.
"We are seeing these tremendous bills where folks have not been able to pay. All of a sudden a utility company will say that they are shutting them off if they don't come up with hundreds or thousands of dollars," she said. "It's a vicious cycle. How do we help if their bills are getting so high?"
Five years ago Chambers was picking up 3,000 pounds of food per month for the local Catholic Charities' food program. Now she is picking up 3,000-4,000 pounds of food per week. She says that the number of working poor people coming to the pantries is increasing "many fold," especially with winter and Christmas approaching.
Chambers told OSV that in years past, Catholic Charities' grant applications listed its hours as 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but now, with the ever-increasing number of working people in need, the agency has expanded its hours.
"It's the people who are working that are coming after 5 p.m. for food, utility and mortgage assistance," she said, adding that a lot of the seniors are also "grandparents as parents," meaning they are raising young children on limited incomes.
Tracy Berglund, director of housing for Catholic Charities of in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, told OSV that her region has seen an 8 percent increase in the number of individuals they serve at their shelters and a 45 percent increase in the number of families they are serving on an emergency basis.
At the agency's food shelves in Minneapolis, workers have polled those seeking assistance to find out whether they are missing meals because they cannot afford food. At one branch, 31 percent had skipped meals because of lack of money; at another branch the figure was 51 percent.
"It's a concern, in terms of increased need," said Berglund, noting that the high cost of utility bills, child care and medical bills combined with the loss of jobs puts people in desperate situations. "We are running through our money more quickly because of increased need."
What does a working family in poverty look like? What looks like poverty to many Americans often does not qualify officially according to U.S. guidelines and thresholds. Here is an example taken from the website of the U.S. Census Bureau:
Family A has five members: two children, their mother, father and great-aunt. By 2006 standards, the family's "poverty threshold" would be $24,662. If the mother in this family earns $10,000 per year, the father earns $5,000 and the great-aunt earns $10,000, the family's income would total $25,000. While the family's day-to-day experience may be one of dire poverty, the family still would not classify as being "in poverty" because they would have an "income surplus" of $338, according to the Census Bureau measurement.
The goals of Catholic Charities' Campaign to Reduce Poverty in America include:
For more information, visit povertyinamerica.typepad.com.
Mary DeTurris Poust is a contributing editor to Our Sunday Visitor.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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